A BP offshore oil platform suddenly shows signs of a potentially devastating leak. Bubbles form in the seawater. Alarms sound. Panicked oil workers flee the rig. That may sound like the moments that preceded last April's Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, but it actually describes an event 19 months earlier, in the Caspian Sea waters of tiny Azerbaijan. There are uncanny echoes of the Azerbaijan incident in the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, including the likely cause - a faulty cement job. But there was one marked difference: While the Gulf explosion created an ongoing political firestorm, the Azerbaijan leak remained almost forgotten until last week, when another leak - this time of diplomatic cables, released by WikiLeaks - showed just how close BP had come to a major disaster in the Caspian.
A series of cables by then U.S. Ambassador in Baku, Anne E. Derse, chronicled a growing testiness between BP and the government of Azerbaijan, whose long borders with Russia and Iran and vast Caspian energy reserves give it strategic importance way beyond its small size. BP commands enormous clout in Azerbaijan, having invested $4 billion in gas and oil pipelines from Baku, which travel through Georgia to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, giving energy-hungry Western Europe a supply channel that bypasses Russia.